By Jaimie Julia Winters
Last November, sick and tired of living out of his car after alcohol and heroin had taken his marriage, his job and apartment, Jack Smith walked into the Salvation Army on Trinity Place committed to changing his life around. His social worker, Ann Marie Goglia, an 18-year veteran of Montclair’s Salvation Army, knew Smith from his other four stays at Cornerstone House Shelter, the Salvation Army’s sober home for homeless men, women and families. But this time was different.
“As my family was heading to Thanksgiving dinner, I was heading to detox. Something was different this time,” said Smith, who requested that his name be changed to protect his identity.
Smith was in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when he heard another member speak. He won’t reveal what was said, only that he knew it was his last chance.
“Whatever happened that day, all my chips are in the game now,” said Smith, who has been sober since November 2017.
After detox he went back to Cornerstone, a nondescript Victorian in the middle of Montclair, where he lived with 23 other men, women and children, all homeless for one reason or another. The opioid epidemic and mental illness are the top factors leading to homelessness, but so is lack of support, Goglia said.
Smith, once a supervisor with AT&T in the early days of cell phones, had battled with alcohol and drugs for years. But the death of his newborn son sent things spiraling out of control. Smith was let go from the company after he was caught stealing to pay for his addiction and for being unreliable.
From the 90s on, he found himself in a vicious cycle. He would head to detox, get sober, land a job and get an apartment, then lose it all to his addiction and wind up back on the street. He would use emergency shelters, which take in people on a night-by-night basis, but said they are dangerous and filled with addicts, and sometimes he preferred the streets depending on the weather. At times, he would check himself into a psych ward claiming he was suicidal just have a place to rest.
“It’s an aimless existence,” he said. “You are shunned, people look at you with disgust. And you look at yourself with disgust. You have no hope.”
Today, he has graduated from the Cornerstone to his own apartment and has a stable job.
Smith said Goglia’s connections helped.
“She made a phone call to a landlord who had a place and also found out the guy owned a diner and needed a driver to deliver food. So I got the place and a job,” Smith said.
For 125 years, Montclair’s Salvation Army, the Montclair Citadel Corps, has been finding shelter, feeding and providing emergency assistance to the homeless or those on the verge of becoming homeless. The Citadel offers showers, food, drop-in assistance programs and a chapel.
Services also include assistance with security deposits on leases, something Smith said he could not have come up with on his own.
He also credits AA and his sponsor for the support provided. He is at step eight — seeking forgiveness for those you have harmed — in the 12-step program. He does some speaking engagements and keeps coffee commitments with other AA members.
He is rebuilding his relationship with his daughters. “It takes some time to rebuild that trust,” he said. But he sees a future now. The Salvation Army gave him hope when he had none, he said. “They saw something in me I didn’t.”
Homelessness high in Essex
According to the most recent numbers, Essex County has the highest rate of homelessness in New Jersey. The New Jersey 2017 Point-In-Time Count revealed that 2,048 individuals were homeless in Essex County on the chilly night of Jan. 24, including 428 people recorded sleeping on the street. Burlington County ranked second in that count, with 604 homeless people, 44 of which slept on the street.
Last year, the Montclair Salvation Army provided emergency shelter to nearly 7,000 people with no place to go.
It also provides showers, clothing, personal care items, breakfasts, addiction counseling, prescription assistance and case management services to over 7,000 people per a year who literally walk in off the street. In partnership with Toni’s Kitchen, volunteers serve the only hot meal most will have on daily basis. For homeless children, the Citadel provides a place to go after school with Internet access, while the Salvation Army offers free summer camp and recreational programs.
But being one pay check away from eviction is not a cliche in Essex County. Residents can’t make more than $500 in order to qualify for government aid. So, they also offer assistance with utility bills, and rent and mortgage payments for those on the verge of losing their homes or heat.
“A loss of a job and no family to fall back on can lead very quickly to losing your home,” said Goglia.
But their services go beyond the basics. Goglia recalls a mother and son housed at the Cornerstone. The 14-year-old and his mother had been evicted 11 times since his birth. At Christmas, Goglia took him home to spend Christmas with her family.
Another social worker was able to locate the mother of a man who suffered from a mental illness. While assisting the man with obtaining a state identification card, his case worker discovered something was off with his name. Finally able to track down his correct social security number, they discovered his mother had been looking for him since he had left the Midwest with his father 30 years ago. The mother and son are now reunited and living together.
The Salvation Army also offers jobs through its bell ringing, kettle program during the holiday season and through Adult Rehab Centers where workers pick up donations left on your porch, and then sort and distribute the items for resale at Salvation Army thrift stores.
From his days on the streets, Smith found that the lack of access to mental health services contributes to homelessness, but says the drug epidemic is making the problem worse than its ever been.
At a breakfast held at the Salvation Army drop Center on Trinity Place last Thursday, Montclair Sgt. Charles Cunningham pointed to CDC statistics showing that nearly 80 percent of heroin users reported misusing prescription opioids prior to heroin. He confided to the crowd that he lost his brother-in-law to addiction in 2005.
“As police officers we are told we are not supposed to act with bias, but we have to act with compassion,” he said.
A new approach has police attempting to give those caught with drugs help with addiction services rather than incarceration.
Salvation Army by the numbers
Served 1,200 hot meals on Thanksgiving Day
Provided 6,982 nights of emergency shelter
Served over 20,000 hot meals, hot coffee and baked goods each day
Provided 3,800 Christmas gifts
Visited and provided gifts to 5,340 individuals in nursing homes
Provided 194 households with utility, rental, and mortgage assistance
Distributed clothing, personal care and household items to over 4,500 individuals
Provided a 621 days of summer camp experience
Provided over 2,800 days of after school enrichment
How to help
Sponsor a night for a needy neighbor by sending a check for $18.50 or $74 for a family of four.
Sponsor a child’s day camp experience
Donate items to drop -in center — Underwear, T-Shirts, sweat pants, back packs, towels, laundry detergent, sleeping bags, razors, plastic shower curtains, shower shoes.
Donate to shelter — Twin sheets, comforters, pillows, mattress covers, cleaning supplies.
Donate to kitchen/ food pantry — canned goods (meats, fish, soups, pastas) with pop tops, juice boxes, dish towels, peanut butter and jelly, pot holders, food processor, ice cream scoops, frying pans, commercial knives